While some expats new to Dubai opt for an easy cookie-cutter approach when furnishing their home, American interior designer Preston O’Brien drew upon her expertise to design outside of the box. Every room in her spacious family home in Dubai’s leafy Jumeirah Golf Estates is like a portfolio piece showcasing a distinct design aesthetic, from colonial to Hamptons to artfully sensory, all tied together with her trademark “fancy casual” approach.
With certain styles in mind, ones that she couldn’t readily accessorise and furnish from Dubai’s retail offerings, she custom-designed and made key accent pieces to create the looks she wanted to achieve.
‘I like casual elegance, sophisticated but also down to earth,’ says Preston, who finished her professional training in New York four years ago. ‘I don’t want anything to feel unattainable, however, I also want it to feel well put together and thought out. I like to use colour but to use it sparingly, so as not to be overloaded by it.’
Preston and her husband Greg, CFO for Shelf Drilling, are expecting their second child, sibling to 15-month-old Winston, who influenced a switch of some of the rooms as they needed a dedicated space for him to play downstairs. Once their home office (now situated in a statement pink and cream room across the hall), the playroom also doubles up as a family room and mixes a mature adult palette with sensory accents for the toddler.
‘I wanted the playroom to feel cosy and intimate and I thought the dark walls would help create this without being overbearing,’ says the designer, from Portland, Oregon. ‘I also wanted it to be fun, playful and youthful. Hence the primary colours, shapes on the wall and stripes in the drapery.’ Preston made the artwork herself, framing bold circles, squares and triangles in a 12-piece display that appeals to both adults and children. The custom-made cushions sport colour-blocked segments that can easily be mixed and matched on the sofa without looking in disarray, which was important to the designer. ‘With a small child they come off and on a lot so I was afraid they would look “wrong” if they were designed to be in a certain order, but you can throw them on and it always looks right.’
Winston’s nursery has also been carefully decorated, with colour a key factor. Creating the room without knowing the gender of their firstborn, they needed to keep the space neutral. His mum ordered the vibrant elephant print fabric from US-based Schumacher and asked Everest Furniture Factory in Dubai to make them into curtains, blinds and a lamp shade. She kept the frames of the furniture from West Elm and Pottery Barn and upgraded them with turquoise upholstery – a bright yet cooling colour.
‘I was very conscious of our surroundings and the climate when I was picking colours for each room,’ says Preston. ‘I really like using warm colours such as oranges, mustards and reds but they don’t work that well in Dubai because of the hot climate. Colours like the turquoise in the nursery, the blue in the playroom and guest bedroom, and blush in the bedroom help to cool the spaces.’
While she’s sourced a few pieces from UAE brands like Marina Home and THE One, many items have been made bespoke, and some larger pieces of furniture come from their New York apartment, where the couple lived before moving overseas. ‘I like custom-making things because then they’re unique, plus I enjoy the process. I also knew I could make these things for less and tweak the design to exactly what I wanted.’ She custom-designed all the curtains and cushions throughout the house and had them made by either Sharjah-based White Palace Curtains or Everest Furniture Factory.
The couple’s furniture from America forms the basis of several rooms, including the basement-level guest bedroom, the master bedroom, and the living room, and influenced their choice of home, as it needed to fit and be in proportion, says Preston. Their large tan A. Rudin sofas and daybed would dominate a small living room, so spacious, open-plan living was key. Preston utilised the oversized daybed between the living and dining areas to aid the flow of conversation between guests, as it’s an open design yet bulky enough to demarcate the living area.
‘I think it helps fill a room but it doesn’t close it off; it allows you to speak to each other and have a view of each space in an open-plan room,’ she comments. The couple like to entertain and commissioned a coffee table made bespoke in Portland, designed in a large format to complement the sofas, complete with shelves that slide out for guests to put drinks on.
‘I feel scale and proportion is hard to nail in Dubai, so we had this custom-made and shipped over. I made the dining table here, using materials from Dragon Mart, which is a great place to go if you want to make something yourself that’s also affordable. I love glass dining tables, and I like to mix materials and textures. I knew I could be cost-effective yet make something that looked really nice.’
The glass tabletop reflects the large potted plants wonderfully, which accentuates the colonial Spanish feel of the room, and also enables the beautiful bamboo and rattan chairs to peek through – an artfully executed touch. These McGuire chairs were a gift from her mum, an interior architect in Portland, whom Preston thanks for her creative personality and eye for design.
‘If I could inherit half of her skills I would be lucky,’ she says. ‘I have a lot of memories as a kid colouring in blueprints she drew. Her studio was like a playground for me, with paint chips, tile samples and fabrics, so I was exposed to design at a young age.’
Despite this, after graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in Art History and Studio Art, Preston took a different – although no less creative – path in fashion, working for Kara Ross NY, a luxury jewellery and handbag designer. She praises this experience as a useful learning curve when it comes to business, logistics and managing client expectations, valuable skills that gave her the confidence to set up her own interior design company, Preston Nichole Design LLC, four years ago.
With encouragement from her mother, she spent three years gaining a master’s degree from the New York School of Interior Design. ‘She had formal schooling and felt strongly about it, and I’m really glad I went back to school as I learnt so much.’
Moving to Dubai soon after, she’s worked on a few projects in the city, including an apartment in JBR and two properties on Palm Jumeirah. And while she’s stopped taking on projects while she’s pregnant with their second child, she admits she misses the creativity and the process of designing. ‘I’m looking forward to getting back into it,’ she says. ‘What I love about interior design is that as long as you stay current you can pick it up wherever you go and whenever you want. I love that flexibility.
The owner American interior designer Preston O’Brien and her husband Greg, CFO for Shelf Drilling, have been in the UAE for four years. They have a 15-month-old son Winston, and are expecting their second child.
The home Their rented villa in Jumeirah Golf Estates has an open-plan living-dining room, a kitchen, playroom, office, and a basement-level guest bedroom, plus a nursery and master suite upstairs.
Get the look
Photography by Stefan Lindeque